Slowly but surely, Iran seems to be letting the world in on a big secret: it is an up-and-coming high-tech powerhouse! Last July, the Iranian startup community opened itself up to the Economist to introduce three of its largest internet companies to the world. Less than two months later, Techcrunch highlighted Iran as the next startup ecosystem to emerge. And in the middle of it all, the Iranian-born-and-educated Maryam Mirzakhani became the first female recipient of the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.
Having spent a good part of this past year in Iran and some of it working at MAPS, a relatively young but highly promising and inspiring startup incubator, what surprises me is not so much that this is finally happening, but rather that it took so long for it to happen. Just consider some of these statistics. Iran has one of the youngest and most educated populations anywhere in the Middle East. More than 70% of Iranians are younger than 35, and Iran’s literacy rate stands at 85% (OECD/WorldBank), a number that increases to 97% among young adults (aged between 15 and 24), without any gender discrepancy and well ahead of the regional average of 62%. Iran’s rigorous education system and college entrance exams filter the best and brightest for its leading institutions of higher learning, where only 10% make it to the highly selective public universities. Maryam Mirzakhani was the product of this system, and her Alma Mater, Sharif University, continues to inch upwards in the rankings among the world’s very best.
Another secret that is gradually bubbling to the surface is that women are at the forefront of this technological breakthrough. Maryam Mirzakhani is truly exceptional however you look at what she has accomplished, but her story makes one wonder how many more like her are still inside the country. 60% percent of college graduates in Iran are women, many of them trailblazers in their own right. Satratech, a MAPS startup, is a predominantly female-run operation having 8 of its 12 engineers as well as its co-founder all women. Shafajoo, its health and medical application, received top honors at the 6th annual Iranian web show in 2014, AND the software gained its 100,000th user within 6 months of its launch. Just this past month, Iran held its first startup weekend for women, one of a handful of countries to ever do so.
There are of course many challenges facing the high-tech community in Iran, challenges such as the US-imposed sanctions, the internal censors, and the continuing brain drain. But these have been a part of life in the country for a long time now, and the Iranians have managed to make their headways despite these problems. In many ways, these challenges have made them more resilient, more resourceful, more creative. Despite the sanctions for instance, you can find any high-tech consumer item you wish in Iran as a visit to Payetakht will attest to. The internal censors have made it inconvenient, and at times difficult to access many sites or to connect to the outside world, but by one account up to 70% or Iranians bypass government filters, a realization that may finally be encouraging the government to ease up the restrictions. And even though the brain drain must be felt on many levels in Iran, it hasn’t stopped the country from embracing internet banking, mobile bill-pay, and the spread and wide use of technology in a host of areas. In fact Iran has one of highest numbers of internet users in the world, ranking 13 when those numbers are taken as a percentage of population, well above, China, Russia, India, Brazil and Turkey.
Outside the country Iranians have cemented their reputation as pioneers in science and technology and by the looks of it, they are doing the same inside. Yes, the road inside has been more challenging with many more ups and downs, but Iranians seem to be overcoming them one by one. Iran is coming online as a high-tech powerhouse. The big question is, how far will it go, and how fast.